Hampshire Hikes & Historical Sites
Bring intriguing coastal trails and history alive in South Hampshire.
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Ramblers Walking Holidays began life in March 1946 originally as the commercial wing of the Ramblers' Association (now just ‘The Ramblers’), to sell books, establish some guest houses for walkers – and to organise walking tours mainly on the continent but also in the UK.
From a cramped room in Buckingham Street in London shared with the formidable ladies of the Married Women’s Association fighting for the rights of housewives and mothers, the founding figure of Ernest Welsman, aided by his shorthand typist assistant and ‘field man’, the ‘Overseas Assistant Organiser’ (known only as Vincent!) began planning the first holidays in these early days of package travel abroad.
By 1948, the company had a whole room to itself and had launched its first winter sports programme. A year after, 600 clients were travelling on 40 different itineraries, and after five years, Ramblers' Association Services (RAS), the company’s original name, was carrying 3,000 clients a year.
Most of these early holidays involved a week’s hard walking with a quarter of the departures at grade B or above in the Alps or Arctic Lapland. We said goodbye for the time being to grade A (now Grade 9) at the turn of the millennium when we stopped encouraging people into glacier crevices to teach them how to get themselves out (anyone remember our Basic Alpine Course in the Oetztal?).
In 1946 ‘A walking tour of Arctic Lapland’ featured for the coming 1947 season, at a cost of £46 for 24 days, necessitating ‘a readiness to walk strenuously when occasion demands, as it often will’ and clarifying that ‘nailed boots must be worn’. Some holidays in these early days had an upper age limit of 25, others 30. These were the days when rambling was at the sharp end of travel and adventure, many years before guidebooks, travelogues or websites could tell you what was around every corner before you turned it.
In 1949, the brochure description for a 22 day holiday to Portugal began ‘Be warned! The travelling on this trip may be tough. Third class London to Lisbon overland takes four days … (average progress 15 miles an hour) and requires at least eleven changes. Incredibly slow and unconscionably late, the Spanish trains offer something new in overcrowding and discomfort even to London straphangers. You should be capable of entering trains by the window and of fending for yourself if the party splits up for the journey across Spain. Portugal is the most foreign country in Europe except for the remoter parts of the Balkans.’ The same brochure observed that ‘we do not seek British standards except in sanitary matters; much of the fun of going abroad is lost if you try to take Britain with you.’
In 1955 the company set up an air holiday subsidiary ‘Wings’ and the easier walking grades and sightseeing tours migrated to the new product. The early flights were on the twin-engined Vickers Viking, a post war civilian passenger aircraft based on the Wellington bomber and carrying up to 38 passengers, flying from either London Airport (before it became what is now London Heathrow) or the now largely forgotten Blackbushe Airport (near Camberley).
Air travel was then exotic enough for our brochures to advertise the inclusion of the services of an air hostess aboard the flight as well as of ‘our resident Wings representative’ for the tour itself. Between 1957 and 1958 the size of the programme had doubled, a fortnight visiting Austria and Switzerland cost 36 guineas and the first regional flights from Manchester appeared.
Within 20 years, following the rapid development of package holidays by air, the RAS walking holiday operation had effectively become a subsidiary of Wings and in 1974 changed its name to the more familiar Ramblers Holidays Ltd.
The company had outgrown its London premises and had bought and moved into a new office block ‘Wings House’ in two acres of grounds in Welwyn Garden City in 1972. Wings was sold off in 1976 and the company moved into smaller premises in Fretherne Road in the city centre. In 2005 the company moved from its leased accommodation in Welwyn Garden City town centre to its current location at Lemsford Mill and in 2016 rebranded as Ramblers Walking Holidays. There can’t be many tour operators who’ve brought a team over from Germany to install a water wheel to power its computers, have gardeners on the payroll, and include wildlife feed (for our swans) in their overheads!